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Zettel Film Reviews » Charlie And The Chocolate Factory – Michael Jackson – the ghost at his choclate feast

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Charlie And The Chocolate Factory – Michael Jackson – the ghost at his choclate feast

Burton Depp-arts from Dahl

Burton Depp-arts from Dahl

Charlie and The Chocolate Factory – Tim Burton

Thirty million copies sold speaks for itself. But for my two kids, and me, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is not one of Roald Dahl’s best books. My kids were inseparable from The Giraffe the Pelly and Me, The Fantastic Mr Fox, James and the Giant Peach, The Twits, Matilda etc Yet Charlie attracts most attention, especially among filmmakers. One explanation might be that Charlie and The Chocolate Factory is the Dahl book most parents want their kids to like. It is full of worthy adult sentiments and lacks Dahl’s conspiracy of empathy with the more uncomfortable, rebellious, anarchic feelings of children that gives many of his other stories a deliciously subversive triumph over proper adult attitudes and control. Charlie is also a book for very young children. Just try getting away with even the name ‘Oompa Loompa’ with any sharp-witted kid over 7; let alone the thinly disguised, patronising adult moral messages at its heart. True the fate of the ‘bad’ kids in the book appeals to children’s instinctive schadenfreude towards their fellows. But even this is disavowed and sanitised within the adult perspective of the book.

So for me, Roald Dahl, not Tim Burton is the main problem with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The last thing Dahl’s curious little story needed was reverence and literal faithfulness to the book rather than its spirit. The book itself is contradictory in tone, sentiment, and moral. Thus faithfulness to it produces a film with the same inconsistencies. And this exactly is Burton’s film, which, mysteriously to me, is in the running for the most over-praised film of the year so far. True Johnny Depp’s performance is better than Burton’s film, and he does get closer than the film does, to the spirit of the sad lonely little boy who grew up to be an eccentric, emotionally dysfunctional man, while locked in a candy store.

Depp wrings every ounce of irony, sardonic humour and acid sarcasm out of the role, helped by an occasionally witty script. But the praise his performance is generating is exaggerated when compared with the superb work he has done in much better films. As you would expect with Burton, Charlie is visually imaginative, inventive, and stunning to look at. The characteristic Burton dark, Gothic visual tone suitably distances it from the sugar-coated Mel Stuart/Gene Wilder 1971 version. But at least Stuart’s film took the book somewhere, even if to most people’s taste, including mine, into a distinctly non-Dahl whimsy.

Burton has to wrestle with the same problem Dahl had: how to make Charlie credible and likeable without sentimentalising him. Both fail. But Burton’s is the bigger failure. Dahl took the space to develop Charlie’s character. Burton relies too heavily on the screen presence and acting ability of Freddy Highmore. It is sad to see this immensely gifted young actor, capable of performances as mesmeric and moving as he displayed in Finding Neverland, reduced to looking sweet and having nothing to work with. Burton’s Charlie Bucket, despite Highmore, is more Tiny Tim than Dahl’s quiet hero. Arrogant though it may appear, it seems to me that both Dahl and Burton missed a trick here. When Charlie finds the money in the snow that will buy him his golden ticket chocolate bar, it would have been more real and interesting if he had seen the money dropped and had the real moral dilemma of returning it to its owner or making a dubious but commonplace decision to take advantage of the situation. This would have made Charlie endearingly fallible yet still good at heart: one of us – child and adult. As portrayed, book and film, it is hard not to see Charlie other than as a bland, conformist goody goody. And Burton gives Highmore no dramatic space to change this perception.

Because of Charlie’s blandness, in one key respect Burton’s film is driven to follow Stuart’s: both put Willy Wonka and not Charlie Bucket at the heart of the story. This is Depp, not Wonka territory. No problem, Depp is more than up to the challenge. But then his imaginative originality as an actor instead of being allowed to take flight, is nailed to the floor by a back-story of stupefying banality and sentimentality. An interesting sequence in the film highlights this: Mike Teavee challenges Wonka’s explanation of how transport-by-chocolate might work, with absolutely relevant scientific facts. Wonka just puts him down. But this is precisely the feisty, independent demeanour of thought that Dahl was at pains to extol. The use of Kubric’s 2001 Space Odyssey creates a delightful sight gag with a Wonka chocolate bar substituting for the mysterious monolith in Kubric’s movie. A visual joke for the adults; as is Mike Teavee’s encounter with Hitchock’s bathroom killer from Psycho. These movie references are incomprehensible to the audience Charlie is supposedly aimed at. There is a moral issue here: Pixar with The Toy Stories and The Incredibles; did not pander to adults, they produced films accessible to both children and adults.

Fathers loom large in Burton films. This perspective inspired two of his very best: Edward Scissorhands and the superb Big Fish. In Big Fish Burton takes the substantial adult source material of Daniel Wallace’s novel and spins it into a breathtaking exploration of a father/son relationship where the literal truth of prosaic reality is transformed by the imagination into a discovered filial love that is simply magical and deeply moving. Dahl’s story can’t carry such weight of emotion and Burton’s preoccupation leads him into his main departure from the book – the back-story of Wonka’s childhood relationship with his father. This fatally rationalises Wonka’s eccentric distinctiveness and sentimentalises the ending in a way that I cannot but feel Dahl would have hated.

Charlie may be unique in a curiously random way. The distinctive aesthetic and moral tone Burton created is undermined by an unforeseeable real event. Michael Jackson is the ghost at the feast of this film. When made, the links between Wonka and Jackson must have seemed apposite and appealing. The parallels are clear: the power of an authoritarian and dominating father, turns a sensitive, talented child into an emotionally stunted and socially dysfunctional, eccentric adult, trapped in the safety of a perpetuated childhood which he is desperate to share. However by the time of the film’s release, the quirky eccentricity of the Jackson story had turned dark and ambiguous. And though Jackson was acquitted of abuse, the disturbing sexual undertow of his story, seeps into Burton’s film. I can understand Depp’s denial of the linkage, especially now, but the striking androgynous physical presence of his Wonka, taken with the parallels of personal history and outcome, makes this disingenuous. This accident of fact alters the way we read Burton’s darkness of tone, in a way surely he would not have wished.

This is not Burton’s fault, and thankfully it will pass over the heads of the children who see his film. But for adults it does make some scenes hard to take on the level they were intended. This is subjective, but at least one of the Oompa Loompa dance routines, ‘Thriller’-like in tone, played by clones of an oddly menacing Deep Roy, do carry a discomforting resonance.

The greatest irony is perhaps unintentional: the film itself is exactly the form of representation of a story that Dahl was most passionately and grouchily attacking within the book itself. Although television was Dahl’s actual bette noir, it was his passionate belief that the ‘givenness’ of the visual image and the passivity of watching something as opposed to reading, with the active thinking that implies, is profoundly damaging to childrens’ precious innate capacity to imagine and invent for themselves. The sheer volume of trash television to which children are exposed of course exacerbates this. It is hard to sustain the argument, especially with the dominance of Hollywood, that films themselves would, for him, be exempt from this criticism.

There is much to enjoy here, not least Johnny Depp’s performance. Burton’s film delights and absorbs the eye. It is amusing, witty and has a certain ironic charm, despite its enforced distortion of tone. My hunch is that its natural market as with the book, is young children and adults. I suspect only marketing hype and nostalgia will get the over 10’s and under 20’s into it let alone to rate it highly.

(Zettel July 2005)

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